A Public Trust at Risk

Peg Eby-Jager writes "A Public at Risk: The Heritage Health Index Report on the State
        of America's Collections has been placed online in its entirety
        at http://www.heritagehealthindex.org/ and identifies urgent need for environmental controls
        The first comprehensive survey ever to assess the condition of
        U.S. collections concludes that immediate action is needed to
        prevent the loss of millions of irreplaceable artifacts held in
        public trust. Improper storage conditions and the lack of
        realistic disaster planning top the list of chronic problems.
        Heritage Preservation, the country's leading conservation
        advocate, in partnership with the Institute of Museum and
        Library Services (IMLS), a federal agency, details these and
        other findings in A Public Trust at Risk: The Heritage Health
        Index Report on the State of America's Collections.
        Key findings of the report include:
                * 80% of U.S. collecting institutions do not have an
                        emergency plan to protect collections with staff trained
                        to carry it out                 * 65% of collecting institutions have experienced damage
                        to collections due to improper storage
                * 190 million objects are in urgent need of conservation
                        treatment
                * The most urgent need at U.S. collecting institutions is
                        environmental control.
        "A Public Trust at Risk concludes that only very few collecting
        institutions in the U.S. have enough funding to ensure the
        safety of their collections. Heritage Preservation urges private
        donors and public officials nationwide to lead new efforts to
        preserve the nation's collected heritage, in light of this and
        other of the report's findings,"
        says Debra Hess Norris, Chairperson of Heritage Preservation and
        Chair and Professor, Art Conservation Program, University of
        Delaware/Winterthur.
        The Heritage Health Index survey is unique in examining the
        state of preservation across the entire spectrum of collecting
        institutions, large and small, from internationally renowned art
        museums and research libraries to local historical societies and
        specialized archives.
        The report chronicles the preservation needs of 4.8 billion
        artifacts held in U.S. collections, among them rare books,
        manuscripts, photographs, prints, maps, films, videos, sound
        recordings, digital materials, sculptures, paintings, drawings,
        textiles, flags, airplanes, furniture, toys, shells, animal and
        plant specimens, fossils, and prehistoric pottery shards.
        "I cannot think of an area of public life supported by as little
        reliable data as that of our nation's collections-up until
        today," says Lawrence L. Reger, President of Heritage
        Preservation. "Now, with an accurate picture resulting from the
        Heritage Health Index, leaders in the private and public sectors
        can make better informed decisions about issues of stewardship."
        The product of extensive planning and a year-long implementation
        process, A Public Trust at Risk: The Heritage Health Index
        Report on the State of America's Collections was made possible
        by major support from the IMLS and the Getty Foundation, with
        additional generous grants from The Henry Luce Foundation, The
        Samuel H. Kress Foundation, The Bay and Paul Foundations, The
        Peck Stacpoole Foundation, and The Gladys Krieble Delmas
        Foundation.
        "Collections are the foundation of everything that takes place
        in museums, libraries and archives," says Mary Chute, acting
        director of the IMLS. "They are vitally important, in part
        because objects take on unanticipated and surprising meanings
        over time. For instance, a botanical specimen we know little
        about today may yield clues to the cure of a disease tomorrow." Environment is the Worst Enemy
        The Heritage Health Index finds that the conditions in which
        objects are stored often pose the chief threat to collections.
        Data shows that collections in a quarter of American collecting
        institutions are vulnerable to all three of the greatest threats
        to delicate objects-fluctuations in temperature, light, and
        humidity-because these institutions report having no
        environmental controls to protect collections.
        Sixty-five percent of the collecting institutions in the country
        reported that parts of their collections have been damaged in
        the past due to improper storage. Nearly as many reported that
        they store a large part of their collections in areas that are
        overcrowded and therefore susceptible to damage.
        In A Public Trust at Risk, Heritage Preservation shows that
        millions of historic documents, photographs, and other objects
        are kept in areas where they are vulnerable to flooding,
        over-heating, light, and infestation by insects. Many are
        crowded onto shelves, where condition problems go undetected.
        Others are stored in acidic containers and, thus, vulnerable to
        a slow decay brought about by leaching acids and other
        chemicals.
        Says Reger: "The Heritage Health Index was conducted during one
        of the great waves of museum building and expansion in U.S.
        history. Yet the data shows that we still have a long way to go
        to provide safe facilities for collections, not just in museums,
        but in libraries, historical societies, and other collecting
        institutions. As trustees, government officials, and
        institutional leaders plan capital projects, we urge them to
        ensure that the basic needs of collections are addressed." Collections Vulnerable to Swift and Catastrophic Loss
        Emergencies are inevitable facts of life, from major disasters
        like Hurricane Katrina to more quotidian occurrences like
        leaking water pipes. Yet A Public Trust at Risk found that fully
        80% of American collecting institutions do not have an emergency
        plan with staff members trained to carry it out. Extrapolating
        from that statistic, Heritage Preservation estimates that more
        than 2.6 billion objects are at risk from disaster striking
        their home institutions.
        "The high percentage of museums, libraries, and other
        collections without an emergency preparedness plan is one of the
        surprises of this report, and a cause for alarm," says Reger.
        "Every collecting institution should have an emergency
        preparedness plan that includes its collections, and staff
        should be trained to implement the plan.
        "We know that in a disaster, after seeing to personal safety,
        shelter, and food, people turn to the things in life that they
        care about most-their family pictures, mementos, and prized
        possessions. In a similar way, public collections reflect the
        shared memories and aspirations of the nation, and must be
        guarded," he concludes. Staffing and Funding
        The survey found that 80% of institutions nationwide have no
        paid staff dedicated to collections care. Without trained
        personnel, it is difficult to address many of problems
        identified by the survey.
        Many collecting institutions are not sure what is in their
        collections or what condition they are in. 70% of organizations
        nationwide do not have an up-to-date assessment of the condition
        of their collections.
        "Staffing need not remain the problem it is today. Not every
        collection requires a full-time professional conservator, but
        staff can be assigned and trained to oversee the basics of
        caring for holdings," concludes Chute.
        Underlying the pervasive problem of staffing--and, indeed, all
        the problems cited in the Heritage Health Index--is the report's
        finding that only 40% of organizations in the U.S. regularly
        allocate funds for care of their collections. This being the
        case, small problems can become expensive ones, for a dollar
        spent on a safe environment is repaid several times over by the
        money saved on conservation treatments.
        "Care of collections need not be a drain on resources.
        Conservation is a subject that can engage the public, encourage
        participation in an institution, and attract financial support,"
        says Chute of the IMLS. The Smithsonian American Art Museum
        discovered that its audience was curious about conservation
        through a series of surveys and focus groups. Now, when the
        museum reopens in Summer 2006, its Lunder Conservation Center
        will offer visitors a behind-the-scenes look at how art is
        conserved.
        Norris pointed out that while the survey's findings are
        alarming, significant progress has been made in the past twenty
        years, due in part to attention at the federal level and from
        several national foundations. "Had this survey been conducted in
        1984, the results would have shown an even worse situation." Methodology
        More than a hundred collections professionals helped to develop
        the Heritage Health Index, which was completed by the staff
        members of 3,370 museums, archives, historical societies,
        libraries, and scientific research organizations throughout the
        country. Responders ranged from small, regional collections,
        like the Hooker County Library in Nebraska, to the largest and
        most prestigious in the nation. These include the Smithsonian
        Institution's museums and centers, all the units of the National
        Archives and Records Administration (including presidential
        libraries), the Library of Congress, The New York Public
        Library, the American Museum of Natural History, the Harvard
        University Libraries and Art Museums, the Metropolitan Museum of
        Art, The J. Paul Getty Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Art
        Institute of Chicago, the University of California, Berkeley
        Libraries, and major National Park Service sites. The RMC
        Research Corporation of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, collected and
        tabulated data and consulted with Heritage Preservation on data
        analysis.
        "

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